Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review: Santiago

For some time now, Santiago has only been available as an import. That changed this month when Z-Man games decided to release the game in the US. That whooshing sound you heard was the sound of thousands of avid gamers breathing a sigh of relief. That's because Santiago is one of those games that belongs in every serious gamer's closet.

Santiago is set in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. Technically, the name should be São Tiago (Portuguese for Saint James) because the Cape Verde islands were a Portuguese colony. These islands are warm and dry and getting anything to grow here requires irrigation. That's where this game gets its theme. In Santiago, players are building plantations and negotiating for the precious water rights that will prevent their plantations from drying up.

The game is played on a grid representing a patch of dry farm land. A spring is placed on one of the intersections and at the end of each turn an irrigation canal will be dug leading from the spring and providing water to the plantations on either side of the canal.

On each turn, a limited selection of plantations are made available. Players bid for turn order, and then each player selects one plantation, places it on the board, and places one or two yield markers in his color on the plantation.

Each plantation represents a crop in either bananas, sugar cane, potatoes, beans, or red peppers. As like plantations are placed next to each other, they together form a larger plantation which will be worth more points to the player or players who have yield markers on it at the end of the game. So the right to place a plantation and put your yield markers on it is quite important.

Whoever bid the least amount gets to be the Canal Overseer for that turn. His job is to decide which plantations will receive water, and which plantations will not. Each player gets to suggest a location for a new irrigation canal. Along with her suggestion, she may also add a bribe. After each player has had an opportunity to either suggest a different location for the irrigation canal, or support one of the current suggestions by adding to the bribe, the overseer makes his choice. He can either accept one of the bribes and build in the suggested location or he may pay one higher than the highest bribe and build wherever he pleases.

Next, any plantation that is not adjacent to an irrigation canal looses a yield marker. If there are no yield markers for the plantation to loose then the plantation is turned upside down, indicating that it has completely dried up.

Players are given a meager income of three Escudos and the next turn begins. This continues until all of the plantations have been placed.

At the end of the game, each plantation is scored. Players receive one Escudo for each yield marker in a plantation times the number of tiles that make up that plantation. So a five tile banana plantation is worth five Escudos for each yield marker on it. The larger the plantation, the more it's worth. Players add all their money and whoever has the most wins the game.

Santiago is one of my personal favorites. It has all of the makings of a great game. The components are attractive. The theme is interesting (although perhaps a bit thin). It's a simple game filled with agonizing decisions: should I bid more to make sure I can expand my banana patch or should I let the others outbid me so I can make sure that the water goes where I need it? The components are simple, yet attractive. It's easy to learn, easy to teach, not so easy to play well. A game can be finished in well under an hour if everyone knows the rules. Players are in it right up to the very end and scores tend to be extremely close.

I have only one minor complaint about Santiago (other than the fact that the designers got the name wrong, which bugs me since I happen to speak Portuguese as a second language) and that is that it uses paper money. Money changes hands frequently enough that the game would work much better with a good set of poker chips, and in fact, that is exactly what we use when we play the game.

If you don't have a copy of Santiago in your library then you really should get a copy. This one truly belongs in everybody's library along side Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It's a true modern classic.


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